Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Twas the Night Before Christmas

It is indeed the night before Christmas and in Australia there are many excited children. It is this sense of excitement that Clement Moore captured in his well-known poem 'Twas the Night Before Christmas'. This poem, written originally for his children on Christmas Eve 1822, is 190 years old this year in its published form. But his rendition of Christmas is just one narrative that speaks of the significance of this special time.

Christmas is a season that means many things to many people. For some, it is simply about sharing in celebrations, taking a holiday and having a good time. While for others it is a time of deep spiritual significance, as the birth, life, sacrifice, death and resurrection of Jesus are remembered. The Christian message is encapsulated in the words of the Gospel of John:

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

At one end of the continuum of explanations of the meaning of Christmas, we have the biblical message of Christmas that John 3:16 captures, while at the other we have the secular message that Christmas is about gifts, family and a good time. In between there are many varied practices and traditions (not all mutually exclusive I might add). I wrote a post about a month ago that offered 28 wonderful picture books (here) that have many Christmas themes and span the entire range of interpretations.

Christmas nativity knitted with pure Aussie wool!

Whatever your understanding of the meaning of Christmas, I hope that in 2013 it will be a time of reflection, rest and great significance. I hope that in your experience it will NOT be a time of sadness, busyness and separation from loved ones. Might you experience and share much love, kindness, compassion and hope. I pray that all readers will be blessed at this special time; one which has its origin in a life that changed the world.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

10 Ways to Get Your Children Writing in the Holidays

We've known for many years that some children (especially children of lower ability) can regress in literacy during long periods of vacation like the summer break. For this reason some advocate that children should keep up their reading and writing over summer. In the Southern Hemisphere we've just entered the summer vacation so I thought I'd offer some thoughts on getting children writing in vacation breaks. I've written a full post on '10 Key Pointers' for developing young writers, but here are four quick principles that apply to summer writing:

1. DON'T make kids do school in summer! What I'm NOT suggesting is that you give you children lots of school activities.
2. DO look for ways to have children use writing for varied real purposes.
3. DO find ways to ensure that your children have interested readers for their writing.
4. DO make it enjoyable, rewarding and even fun!

Some ideas

With the above foundational principles in mind here are some ideas.

1. Quirky journals

By this I mean DON'T ask your kids to 'keep a diary over the holidays' (boring!). Instead try to understand what they are interested in and suggest they 'make some notes', 'keep some records', 'create a list', start their own 'Detective Clues' book, or create a 'Scientists observation book'. Focus on anything that interests them. For example:

Player profiles for cricket, soccer, football, tennis, surfing
Sporting records for specific teams
Ten things you have to know about.... (insert the name of a rock star, sporting hero, public figure, media personality etc)
Top ten things I like about.... (insert the topic)...
A Science Observation Journal (see my last post on science apps for one example HERE)

2. Musical Writing

If your children love music get them to try writing some to well known melodies. Re-write songs they know to make them funny, offer a different point of view etc. Some teachers have found that even rap music is a great way to get some children writing (see my post on music and language HERE).

3. Advertising

Get them to identify, record or collect their 10 favourite advertisements and re-write them or change them to make a serious advertisement funny, or a funny one serious. They could do these in print form, record an audio or even create a video advertisement (all you need is a mobile phone with video option).

4. Fractured fairy tales

Encourage them to take a well-known fairy story and 'update' it. They might change the ending, introduce extra characters, or make a serious or silly point. Here's a useful site that gives examples and offers a template to write some HERE.

5. Never-ending story

I've shared this strategy before. It's very simple. If you have more than one child get them all involved in this (plus you if you have time). You write a simple story starter on the top of a page (no more than 2 sentences). You hand it to someone and they write the next paragraph, they hand it to the second writer who adds their sentences, then folds over all but their own contribution. This is then passed from one to another until the page is full. The last person has to end the story. They then unfold the paper and read it together.

6. Start a blog

I've written about this already on the blog so you can read my post 'Children as bloggers'. But in essence, you need to create a blog template (they might be able to do this with your help) which has a purpose and which they share with specific readers (family, friends etc). There are many 'child safe' sites for doing this. You might take a specific interest of your children and suggest that they find out more and share their ideas. The beauty of a blog is that they can share words, images, audio files, videos etc. When my grandchildren lived in England for six months and were home schooled by their Mum, they all had their own blogs and wrote posts almost every day. It was a brilliant way to stretch them as writers as they described visits to museum, retold stories, did some poetry, reviewed their favourite reading and so on.

7. Try some film making

Once again I've written about this before so first read my previous post on the topic HERE. But there are many wonderful apps that can be used on tablets or packages that allow children to create films and animation. Obviously film making requires some script writing not just filming.

8. Write a book!

There are many ways that your children can make a book using new applications designed specifically for them. One recent example is the use of Clicker Books from Crick Software. This app offers a publishing template that allows children to add text, photographs etc to create a book and then publish it in pdf form to distribute to readers. They might write a book on a key interest, a famous person, their family and life, or simply focus on a topic they find interesting. You might find my post on 'Digital Storytelling' to be useful in relation to this as well HERE.

9. Stories in a box

I've written about this strategy before. If you're cleaning out the shed or the attic, you are bound to find some interesting objects, photos, and artefacts. Talk about them, share your memories, put them in a box and get kids writing. See my post on this HERE. The purpose of this activity is to get children thinking creatively about a set of objects and then creating a narrative that might be related to the objects.

10. Immerse them in poetry

Poetry writing is something that children can find enjoyable and less challenging than you might think. The key is to read lots of poetry first. You can then play with language and from there it is a short jump to poetry.

When my daughter lived in Cambridge for 6 months she took her children to 'Byron's Pool' and did some poetry writing (HERE) and the outcomes were wonderful. But such experiences aren't always available and without your children having much experience of poetry you might just start by getting them to:

  • Play with language, rhyme, new words, and technical terms.
  • Play with words as you drive with them in the car, walk with them along the road.
  • Play word games with them and make it fun! Dr Seuss is a great place to start with general language silliness (see my post on Dr Seuss HERE).
  • Give them new words in the midst of real life experiences.
  • Read some anthologies 

Here's a helpful post on the varied forms of poetry that children can write with examples (HERE).

Summing up

The above are just some of the many ways to get children writing. The key is to make it enjoyable, let their interests be the guide and to offer them readers who enjoy their work and show genuine interest. I would love to have any ideas that readers have concerning holiday writing.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Great Science Apps for Kids Aged 6-12 Years

I've reviewed lots of apps for children on this blog, here's one that I think deserves a post on its own. 'Meet the Insects' is actually three apps that deserve some attention. If your child likes to learn and is fascinated by nature then they should love this series of three apps that focus on insects.

'Meet the Insects: Water & Grass Edition' (NCSOFT) was released in September and is the third app in the series of iPad encyclopaedia apps from iaction books. I will mention the previous apps after reviewing this most recent offering. Each of the apps in the series is an effect interactive encyclopaedia for young entomologists. What I love about the apps is the variety and quality of opportunities for learning. As with the previous two apps ('Forest' and 'Village'), it comes with five ways to learn about insects. The app uses information from the National Science Museum of Korea. One lovely feature is that, at the touch of a button, you can view the insects by day or night.

In this latest app, the focus is on insects that live in or near waterways. With the tap of an appropriate image the main menu offers access to:

a) Information on insects - This comes in animated form and covers what insects are, life cycles, how they breathe, and varied characteristics.
b) Multimedia - This contains the most fabulous images and videos. The resolution and quality of the videos is stunning! You can watch a Backswimmer catching a fish, insects fighting over prey under water, a water scorpion hunting and so on. All have commentary and music that is at an appropriate level and is very engaging.
c) 'See the Insects' classificatory information on insect orders - this appears in the form of slide presentations with commentary that can be read as well as listened to. This is scientifically accurate, but it also has fun elements to click for extra information. You navigate through the encyclopaedia by helping an insect to move up or downstream. Over thirty insects are featured from the orders of Hemiptera (Water Bugs and Striders), Hymenoptera (bees), Coleoptera (beetles), Mantodea (Mantis) and Odonata (dragonflies and darters). There is also a cute magnifying glass to zoom in more closely and learn more about body parts. You can also move each insect as you touch them, and there are short notes for each. Each page also has post-it notes with more information if you tap them.

d) Observation Journal - this is a wonderful feature that allows the young learners to record their own observations. It also has the option to include your own photos as well as text and other information (e.g. weather). I love this feature.
e) Quiz - finally there is an excellent quiz that allows you to learn as well as test your understanding. The tests are relatively easy and will encourage users to revisit the various sections of the app if they get anything wrong.

As I indicated at the start of this post, there are two earlier apps that are of similar format and quality. The very first app in the series was 'Meet the Insects: Forest Edition'. This app features insects that live in the forest. The video that follows reviews all aspects of the app.

The second app in the series, 'Meet the Insects: Village Edition', as the name suggests deals with insects you might meet in the forest. All three apps have similar features and are of comparable quality.

All three 'Meet the Insects' app is available for $US 6.99 each from the iTunes store and are excellent value.


As in my other app reviews, I have used a rating scale that attributes a score from 1 (Poor) to 10 (Outstanding) to indicate the extent to which the app meets the following criteria:
  • The app is enjoyable to use
  • Children learn new things because of the app
  • The app makes it easier for children to learn
  • The app interactive elements don't distract from the key learning goals
  • The app is well designed, attractive and engaging
  • The app represents good value for money
'Meet the insects' is a wonderful app series that children aged 6-12 years will love. I can particularly see boys exploring this app for hours.  The content is appropriate for this age group (even the mating insects!) and the language is appropriate and scientifically accurate. The content is presented in manageable packages that allow children to learn a little or a lot.

My rating of this app series is 9/10.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Questions Matter! Helping Children (& Teachers) to Ask Good Ones

Children ask lots of questions. Sometimes their questions don’t move beyond repetitive “Why?” questions that can be annoying. But as well as helping them to learn, children's questions can also teach us a great deal about them and their learning. 

  • Children’s questions usually show us how keen they are to learn – We see that there are gaps in their knowledge, new areas of interest, & things that puzzle them.
  • Questions offer us a window into children’s learning – We discover what they are interested in, their learning styles, and how well they learn best.
  • Questions are also one way that children try to take control of their own learning - As they ask questions they try to set an agenda and focus for their learning.
  • Questions are a way for children to test their existing knowledge - They assess what they know and test their own hypotheses.
In short, questioning is a critical tool for children’s learning, and needs to be encouraged.

Two of my grandchildren on a trip to the Australian Museum with me. A great stimulator of questions!

1. How can I ask better questions to stimulate learning?

Questioning is a vital tool for parents and teachers. We should try to ask a variety of questions, but NOT just to test learning. Rather, the best use of questions is when they are used to stimulate curiosity, problem solving, imagination, a quest for knowledge and as a result, learning. A good tool for asking better questions is a simple taxonomy. There are many ways to classify questions but Bloom's Taxonomy is still one of the most useful frameworks for helping us to get better at it. These include:

  • Questions that test knowledge or seek basic recall of knowledge – “What colour is the frog?” “What did the first pig build his house from?
  • Questions that seek some level of interpretation – “How come Max's food was still hot?” “What was the story about?” “Why was Pinocchio sad?”
  • Questions that require application of knowledge or problem solving – “Why didn’t the stepmother let Cinderella go to the ball?” “Why are there so many worms in this bit of the compost heap?”
  • Questions that require analysis – “Can you show me all the animals that live in water?” “Why do you think the 3rd little pig got up before the time he told the wolf?” “Was Fern’s father mean to want to kill Wilbur?
  • Questions that require synthesis of knowledge – “So which animal sank the boat and how do you know?” “What do you think is going to happen when the 3rd Billy Goat crosses the bridge?
  • Questions that require some type of evaluation (opinion, values, critique, judgement) – “Was Max naughty? Should his mother have sent him to his room?
You can find a more detailed overview of Bloom's categories here.

2. How can I encourage children to ask questions? 
As I have already said above, it is important for children to make good use of questions. To help them learn what good questions are you can model questioning for them. There are a variety of ways that you can do this.

  • Ask questions of children that encourage learning and thinking
  • Avoid over-using questions that just test learning, or that simply channel learning in directions that you want it to go.
  • Try to give honest answers to children’s questions.
  • Don’t be frightened to say “I don’t know”, but use this to demonstrate that not knowing the answer should lead to further learning “Let’s try to find out…
In Australia we have a very funny advertisement for an Internet company that has a sequence of exchanges between a boy and his Dad. In one the boy is doing some research for school on China. He asks his Dad, “Dad, why did they build the Great Wall of China?

His Dad suggests, “That was during the reign of Emperor Nasi Goreng - to keep the rabbits out – too many rabbits in China”.

I'll say it again, we should never be afraid to say, “I’m not sure, but I’ll think about it and let you know” (view the video HERE).

3. Here are 4 strategies to help children ask better questions
I wrote a whole book about comprehension strategies some years ago ('Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work') but here are just four question strategies that can be adapted for use with children of varied ages. In these examples, I'm assuming a grade 5 (10-11 year-olds).

a) Question frameworks

Make a chart that has a simple framework for questing complete with examples. The one above based on Bloom's Taxonomy is an example. An even simpler example is one developed by Nila Banton Smith and has proven helpful for many teachers:

Literal - These ask for details or facts you can find in the text, e.g. 'What was the rat's name in Charlotte's Web?'
Interpretive - These require the reader to supply meaning not directly stated, e.g. 'Why did Fern's father want to kill the runt pig?'
Critical - These require the reader to evaluate something, e.g. 'Do you think Templeton was honest?'
Creative - These require readers to go beyond the text, to express new ideas, solve a problem etc, e.g. 'What other words might Charlotte have used in her web to save Wilbur?'

Use the chart to discuss the varied type of questions we can ask about stories, use the categories at times when asking questions of the class, model the varied forms in group work, and use them for some set work. I offer further information on the above questioning strategy in my book 'Balancing the Basics'.

b) Visual Comprehension

You can use images, cartoons or a short video segment to stimulate and model questioning. The example below shows how a simple template for group work can be used to direct attention at images and generate good questions and insights (see my post on 'Visual Comprehension' HERE). The grade 4 students were looking at a series of newspaper images.
c) Talk-to-the-author
I developed this strategy many years ago and wrote about it in 'Teaching Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work'. It is a very simple strategy designed to get young readers thinking about the implied author and meaning that is beyond the literal. The technique is applied like this:

Step 1 - prepare some passages of 300-1000 words in length (from magazines, school readers, newspapers etc), or identify a passage in a class reader or book.
Step 2 - demonstrate the technique using a smartboard and explain that the idea of this technique is to encourage us to ask questions that we might ask if we had the author in the room.
Step 3 - have your class help you with a second passage on the smartboard.  
Step 4 - provide a passage and ask them to read, making note of at least 6 questions they might ask of the author and also at least 4 comments they might offer.

d) Character Interview

I developed this strategy while working with gifted children, but it can be used in any primary classroom. It requires readers to select a character from a book and interview them. You can do this in several ways. The simplest, and perhaps the best way to start this strategy, is to ask children in pairs to come up with ten questions that they would ask of a character in a story if they had the chance. They can then act this out with one being the interviewer and the other the character.
An alternative to the above is to have one student prepare a series of questions to which another student, filling the role of the character, has to answer. Once again, it is helpful to give some guidance about the need to ask varied questions that include interpretive, critical and creative questions, not just literal ones.

Other posts on comprehension

You might like to have a look at the following posts on comprehension:

'Teaching and Supporting Children's Reading Comprehension' (HERE)
'Reading to Learn Using Text Sets' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Sketch to Stretch' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Map Making' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Advance Organisers' (HERE)
'Emergent Comprehension in Children Under Five' (HERE)